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Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s communications chief leaving for Teach For America (update)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks at the ConnectED conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

(Update: Adding Ritsch’s replacement; clarifying quote from Duncan)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is losing his second communications chief in two years. Massie Ritsch, the acting assistant secretary for communications and outreach, is leaving his job to take a new position at Teach For America.

Ritsch had served as deputy assistant secretary for external affairs and outreach at the department until late 2012, when he took over for Peter Cunningham, who had been assistant secretary for communications and outreach from the start of the Obama administration.

A mark of just how effective Cunningham had been from the start of his tenure was his success in persuading Rolling Stone magazine to put Arne Duncan on the 2009 list of the 100 top “Agents of Change.” Duncan was No. 98, but still ahead of Taylor Swift, who was No. 100. Cunningham, who was an extremely close adviser to Duncan, is now executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based nonprofit communications organization promoting education reform.

Ritsch is moving to TFA, where, as his tweet says, he will be doing some communications work. TFA has been popular with the Obama administration for years, evidenced by the the millions of dollars it has won from the Education Department in recent years and by the praise heaped on it by the secretary himself. For example, in 2011, Duncan told the organization’s 20th reunion that TFA had “made teaching cool again in low-income communities for a whole generation of talented college graduates.” Duncan also said this about TFA found Wendy Kopp: “I don’t think anyone in the country has done more over the past 15 to 20 years than Wendy Kopp to identify the talents and characteristics that lead to great teaching” (while the then-president of America’s largest teachers union, Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association, was standing with her).

He is being replaced by someone well-placed in the reform community. He is Jonathan Schorr, a partner in the San Francisco office of the NewSchools Venture Fund and a former director of New Initiatives at the KIPP Foundation. He was also a member of the founding corps of Teach For America, teaching for three years in Southern California.

Ritsch sent this email to his colleagues and others:

Dear Colleagues,
This week I let my colleagues at the Department of Education know—and I wanted you to know, as well—that I will be leaving ED in December to join Teach For America. There, I will have both a similarly long title—Executive Vice President of Public Affairs and Engagement—and a similar job leading a team responsible for the organization’s communications, marketing, research and strategic partnerships. I will work from TFA’s Washington office in DC’s Shaw neighborhood—a seven-minute walk from my house. My wife, our two early learners and I are very excited about this new opportunity, and after 5 ½ years at ED, I am looking forward to focusing on the critical task of recruiting, preparing and supporting the next generation of great teachers and education leaders, especially to transform opportunities for disadvantaged students.
At the Department, my colleague and friend Jonathan Schorr will take over as Acting Assistant Secretary for Office of Communications and Outreach. As Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communications Development for nearly two years, Jonathan’s work as ED’s chief wordsmith and storyteller intersects with all aspects of our office’s work, positioning him to smoothly step in to run the show. Karen Stratman and our National Engagement team will continue to provide top-notch service to your organizations, and our colleague Joe Walsh remains your man for state and local needs. I am leaving a fantastic team of wonderful people.
When I came to Education in 2009, I knew many of your organizations, but I hadn’t met most of you. Getting to know the people who go to work every day in service to America’s schools, educators, parents, students and employers has been one of the great pleasures of this job, and I look forward to continuing to work with you in my new role at Teach For America.
My last day at ED will be Dec. 12, and I will start Jan. 12 at TFA. New contact info will follow when the time comes.
Thank you for all of your support, partnership and even the occasional cranky email, call and tweet.
Best wishes,
Massie Ritsch
Acting Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach
U.S. Department of Education

Duncan, incidentally, is now on his third press secretary; Justin Hamilton was the first and left in November 2012; he is now senior vice president for corporate communications at Amplify, an education company owned by Rupert Murdoch and run by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. Daren Briscoe, who had been deputy press secretary, took over but left in the summer of 2013 to join a public relations and consulting firm. He was succeeded by the current press secretary, Dorie Nolt, who previously served as assistant director of communications at the Georgia Department of Education.